Posted in Russia, scotland

Soviet Burns

I recently spent Hogmanay back in Scotland, and being there in January meant I witnessed the preparations for Burns’ Night. One thing that you can’t escape in the UK is the ruling class’s sycophantic fawning towards the USA. We’re led to believe that anything we produce only has value if the Americans approve. Robert Burns is no different, and so the BBC have commissioned a documentary about how much Americans love Burns. The subliminal message being that the Yanks like him so we can too, no Scottish cringe required.

Burns, however, had a massive impact all over the world. Its undoubtedly true that Burns did have a huge impact in the States – but he was also hugely influential in that other 20th Century superpower; the Soviet Union. Did you know that Burns was on the school curriculum in the USSR? I’ll admit that I didn’t know this until my Ukrainian mother-in-law told me. I’ll also admit to being quite annoyed – the BBC will spend a fortune to inform us of a tenuous link between Burns and Elvis Presley, but nobody thought it worthwhile to mention a very unambiguous fact about our national bard’s legacy? The political bigotry of the British ruling class becomes only too apparent under the microscope of facts.   

It’s not only a question of the classrooms of the old Soviet Union. Right across the region Burns’ influence is undeniable. Many of the soundtracks to iconic Soviet and post-Soviet movies use translations of his poems as lyrics, and many artists have had chart successes using his songs – from this punky effort in Moldova to this more folky sounding Russian artist.

Burns popularity in the region predates the Soviet Union of course. We know that the great Russian poet Pushkin admired Burns, but had found his poems extremely difficult to read because of the Scottish dialect. Other great Russians also professed their admiration for Burns, including celebrated novelists Lermontov and Turgenev. Why was Burns so popular among these pre-Soviet people? That is perhaps best answered by another poet, this time the Ukrainian Taras Shevchenko who when explaining Burns popularity remarked that, “to know people, you have to live with them – and to know their life, you need to be them.” What Shevchenko had realized in Burns was of the utmost importance – proximity to the people. That was the appeal of Burns, he spoke to the common man about the concerns of the common man. And in pre-Soviet Russia those concerns were revolutionary.

In the same period we find the first serious attempts to translate Burns into Russian, by the revolutionary critic and publicist Michael Mikhailov. Mikhailov was someone who translated many poems from English into Russian. He selected poems that were close to himself in spirit, and the revolutionary Russian saw in Burns the same rebel. In his translations Mikhailov gave Burns’ freedom-loving poetry a life affirming humanism and the spirit of struggle and action which is characteristic of his best works. Unfortunately Mikhailov only translated about a dozen of Burns poems: imprisonment and exile soon put an end to his translating and political activities.

As things moved towards the end of the 19th Century, and the 100th anniversary of Burns’ death, a new upsurge of interest in the poet was observed in Russia. In the pages of Russian magazines such as “Russian Wealth“, “Russian Thought“, “Education” and “Herald of Europe” there was a steady stream of articles about Burns and translations of his work. In one such article, from the journal “Idea”, the writer says of Burns: “The people will repeat his songs because in them they find the expression of their feelings, their thoughts, their life.” The article emphasizes that Burns, in his poems, expresses all the grief that has accumulated over the centuries in the hearts of people who exclaim, “We have a right to a better life!

However, at this time translations of Burns were known to be of poor quality – Burns was actually considered by many to be untranslatable, primarily because of his use of Scottish dialect. In the first half of the 20th Century the work of one man would change all of this and elevate Burns to new heights of popularity within the Russian speaking world – which by now was the Soviet Union.

Samuil Marshak was a successful poet in his own right, and was one of the few translators in the Soviet Union who had actually studied abroad. In the UK Marshak studied not only philosophy and English Language but also Scottish dialects. He actually travelled around the country collecting Scottish folk ballads and songs. This was key to the success of his translations – he understood Scots in way that all those who came before him, including the great Pushkin, could not. Marshak was to become a prolific translator on his return to the USSR, going on to translate not only Burns but also William Blake, Rudyard Kipling and William Shakespeare – but it was for his translations of Burns that he was to win most recognition with Soviet readers. “Marshak made Burns a Russian, leaving himself a Scot!”, wrote the poet Alexander Twardowski.

Beginning in 1930, Marshak would translate some 216 of Burns’ poems and songs, although lamented that his translation work remained unfinished. Marshak delivered Burns poetry in a foreign language with the same amazing freedom and engaging simplicity as the original. He smashed the myth of the supposedly untranslatable Burns. He expressed, with unusual strength for translations, all the features of Burns’ poetry. He managed to capture accurately the thought, the musicality of the verse and the combination of natural conversational speech with melodic power. He captured the satire and the jokes, as well as the deep intimacy of the works. The result is an illusion that Burns wrote in Russian.  

Marshak thought that what was most important was to convey the true image of the translated poet, to faithfully reflect his era and the national identity of his works. Marshak believed that the poet translator should be like the reincarnation of the author – he should fall in love with him, with his manner and with his language. It is heartbreaking, therefore, to see Marshak so maligned by the liberal intelligentsia as they attempt to remove from Burns any notion of his revolutionary character in order to “sanitise” him and make him safe for their own consumption.

Anti-Soviet scholars, such as Natalia Vid, have deliberately misinterpreted Marshak and his work in order to reject the notion of a “Soviet Burns”. Vid ties herself up in knots trying to slander Marshak through a combination of lies and her own obvious ignorance of the subject. She actually accuses Marshak of changing the title of “A man’s a man for a’ that” to “An Honest poverty” – allegedly Marshak did this for sinister ideological reasons as part of the Soviet dictatorship of the arts! Clearly Vid is unaware that the original title of the poem, as given to it by Burns himself, was “Is There an Honest Poverty”. In other words, Marshak’s translation of the title is actually closer to the intentions of Burns than the more common title that most of us use and are familiar with. Similarly, she claims that the Soviets banned all translations of Burns other than Marshak’s, which ignores basic checkable facts such as the 1963 publication of Burns poetry by the publishing house “Soviet Russia”, in which all the poems were translated by Fedotov.

Burns, through the great work of Marshak, became the people’s poet of Russia. As they did with McLean, the Soviets honoured Burns with a commemorative stamp. It is believed that there are more celebrations of Burns night in Russia than any other country outside Scotland – with evenings from 22nd to 25th January being taken up with music, dancing, poetry, whisky tasting and traditional Scottish meals. But to really grasp the importance of Burns in Russia I would like to leave you with the words of Marshak, who could answer that question better than anyone:
The poetry of Robert Burns is part of [Russian] daily life. Our young people quote him in their love letters. Our best composers have set his lyrics to music and these songs come over the radio intermingling with the hum of our work-days and the merry-making of our holidays. Volumes of his poetry are found in the studies of our intellectuals, the cottages of our farmers, the apartments of our workers and the tables of our students. Burns creates links between people in defiance of all who would keep our nations apart. And it must not be forgotten that it is in human hearts, not museums or monuments, that his poems will be preserved.

Posted in Inverclyde Politics

Meandering through Fuel Poverty, via Yugoslavia and the USSR

Fuel poverty is defined as paying 10 percent or more of your household income on heating and lighting, or in other words 10 percent or more on your gas and electricity bills. Now 10 percent might not sound like much at first, but when you take into account all your other household bills such as rent/mortgage, council tax, food, transport, telephone, childcare, clothes, insurance, debt repayments, and so on it soon becomes apparent that 10 percent of your income is a rather significant amount.

In Inverclyde alone there are roughly 8000 households in fuel poverty. A recent study, which actually appeared on the front page of the Tory friendly Daily Express, found that 84% of Scottish households ration their energy usage during the winter as they can’t afford the bills. 84% of us in an energy rich nation! That is simply not good enough, and it is about time the politicians did something about it. The big energy companies make obscene profits every year, and yet they continue to put our bills up. People have had enough of being ripped off! At the Scottish Socialist Party we want to see the energy industry returned to public ownership to ensure the needs of the people come before the greed of shareholders. That is the essence of socialism – arranging our society and industries so that everyone benefits, not just the rich.

Now of course, any-time we speak about nationalizing industry, there are those who repeat the line that we somehow need private companies. They claim that private investment is what makes our economy work, and that we shouldn’t use government to interfere with the markets in an attempt to solve our nation’s problems. One of the fundamental beliefs held by that sort of person is that if we leave the markets alone and unregulated then the markets will correct themselves and everything will be fine. Despite literally centuries’ worth of evidence to the contrary, many people still accept this faith in private markets unquestioningly.

The ideological universe that these people inhabit is one that has been removed from the social context of the real world. History records that in the 1840’s, when it was becoming apparent that Ireland was facing a famine, a delegation from Ireland visited the Prime Minister of the day (Lord John Russell) to plead for relief for the starving poor people. Russell answered their pleas by reading to them from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, to explain to them that the markets would solve everything and that the government shouldn’t interfere. As a result, over 1 million people starved to death in Ireland. In effect, over a million people starved to death because of the capitalist’s economic ideology.

Fast forward to today, and we see the same dangerous ideology still claiming millions of lives annually: poor people sacrificed at the altar of capitalism. Last year that included 31,000 UK pensioners who died of preventable cold related illnesses, and all because they couldn’t afford to keep their heating on during the winter. Meanwhile, the profits of the biggest six energy companies rose by 77%. At the Scottish Socialist Party we demand that the profiteering be taken out of this vital industry. We should be cutting prices and profits, not people’s lives!

Frankie Boyle was onto something when he noted that to certain people capitalism is a religion. Acolytes believe in its principles even when these are proved wrong. As Frankie says, “Business people, in case you haven’t noticed, dress in costume, go off on retreats together, and speak with the same glassy-eyed passion about their orthodoxy as Christians.” In their world, the market is our God. It’s everywhere. When the market is angry, ‘sacrifices’ have to be made. Go to your nearest scheme, look at the lives of the kids there, and tell me that the market doesn’t demand sacrifices.

Frankie goes on to wonder what kind of God the capitalist’s market actually is. Clearly a God that thinks you shouldn’t receive medical treatment unless you can afford it; that tells us patent profits in the developing world are more important than affordable medicines. It will be interesting to see how their God fares against the Chinese. The Soviet Union was bought off with promises of jeans and cars and cheap stereos. It’ll be difficult to sell the same mirage to China, because they already make all that stuff.

So let’s reject this capitalist notion of free markets, the weight of evidence collected over the centuries is evidence enough that we should. That millions are starving to death while food literally rots in the fields is simply indefensible. It is interesting how famine deaths become ‘mass murder’ only when they occur in a Communist Party-led state. If we use the same criteria that are used to tally up the astronomical death counts attributed to the USSR and PR China, the British Empire is responsible for nearly 50 million deaths in India alone, as a result of the famines in the 1870’s and 1890’s. In fact, in that case there is far more convincing evidence that the deaths were intentional. The historian Mike Davis documents that at the height of the famine grain was being exported for profit outside India, and that foreign observers witnessed British troops massacre starving mobs as they tried to storm the grain silos.

It always galls me how anti-socialists are always going on about the so-called “mass murder” of starvation in communist countries like the Soviet Union and China. Meanwhile in the capitalist world tens of thousands of people are starving to death every single day, even though there is enough food to feed the entire world human population twice over. The famines in the Soviet Union and China were caused by there simply not being enough food to distribute. The constant hunger under capitalism persists even when there is plenty of food. During the famines in Africa a few years ago the countries there continued to export food for profit. Hunger in capitalism exists by design; it is a logical consequence of the capitalist mode of distribution according to profit for the owners rather than human need. Whenever there is a mention of the USSR, the capitalist apologists will say something like “The evil commies starved their own people!!!” But you’ll never hear them say the same thing about Ethiopia or the Congo or any other country where hunger and starvation are a fact of life under capitalism. If communists are “murderers” because they couldn’t wave a magic wand and distribute food that didn’t exist, then capitalists are far worse murderers because they deliberately withhold food and only distribute it according to their own gain no matter how many people are starving.

Of course, these people will say that “socialism doesn’t work”, and that history somehow proves this. They claim as if it were fact that every country that ever tried socialism failed. First of all, even if that were true, it still wouldn’t justify the suffering that capitalism causes around the world. But more importantly it is demonstrably false. Before NATO (led by the USA) went in and totally destroyed their country, the Yugoslavs were leading the way in terms of successful socialism. In the two decades before the crimes committed by NATO, Yugoslavia had an average annual GDP growth of 6.1%, a decent standard of living, free medical care and free education, everyone had a guaranteed right to a job, there was affordable government owned transport and housing, the literacy rate was over 90% and the life expectancy was 72. They achieved all this by implementing their own model of socialism: a mix of public ownership, private investment and workers cooperatives, all of which contributed to give Yugoslavia a higher rate of growth than most western European nations. So let’s just forget that lazy argument that “Socialism doesn’t work”.

Let us instead implement socialist solutions to the problems of our society, problems such as fuel poverty. Let us reject as immoral the government’s own solution that people who can’t afford their heating bills should just put on more clothes, or go to bed early. That sort of attitude by the Tories is demeaning and disgusting. Worse still, it deprives those suffering from fuel poverty from enjoying a true freedom. Freedom in the socialist tradition is understood as man’s power over circumstances, freedom from exploitation and oppression of man by man. Freedom requires overcoming abject dependence, poverty and fear. The exploitation of the masses by the big energy companies, through artificially high fuel bills in order to produce astronomical profits, is one of the biggest threats to the working class today. The current Westminster and Holyrood administrations simply are not doing enough to tackle this problem.

In an independent Scotland the Scottish Socialist Party will campaign to bring North Sea oil and other energy generating industries into the public sector, so that we can eliminate fuel poverty as well as invest in protection of the environment and developing renewable energy. Under devolution, the SSP is committed to campaigning for responsibility for energy to be transferred from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament and for the wealth of Scottish energy resources to be brought into public ownership. This will allow us to put people, and the planet, before profit.

As Colin Fox recently observed in his pamphlet on the subject, fuel poverty is developing into a political crisis in Scotland and it is not unlike the one we faced in the late 80’s with the Poll Tax. In that instance the Tories introduced a highly regressive tax, one which bore no relation to a person’s ability to pay, and just like today’s fuel bills they demanded people paid when they didn’t have the money to do so. In the end the poll tax was abolished because 14 million people refused to pay it. There are many important lessons to be learned from the anti-poll tax struggle in terms of fighting fuel poverty. Most importantly is to realise that opposition to injustice is right and proper.

So if you, like us, feel a sense of indignation at injustices like fuel poverty, perhaps you will find a home in the Scottish Socialist Party. Let me take this opportunity to invite you along to one of our meetings, you will be warmly welcomed. You can find us Facebook or Twitter, or visit, for more info.